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Handling Priorities

Here's my first real chunk of useful stuff for DFW: handling priorities.  I've rattled on quite at length about it at my other blog.  Here, I want to follow a more methodological approach.  Why should you care about prioritizing tasks, and how can you do it so that prioritization is both effective and efficient?

I think my other post about priorities does a good job with the background, and how other key time management systems, including Getting Things Done and the Franklin Covey method.  My other favourite system, AutoFocus, completely ignores priorities.

The reason for all the fuss about prioritizing tasks is simple: you've got all these things to do - surely it makes sense to put them in some sort of rank order and then do them based on their importance.

The problem with prioritizing your tasks, as Mark Forster rightly points out, is that priorities change.  They change based on how you feel, and on all kinds of external factors that you cannot control.  This makes priorities moving targets, which means you'll either (a) spend a lot of time keeping them up to date - in which case you lose efficiency, or (b) not bother to keep them updated - in which case you lose effectiveness.

I think that prioritizing tasks can be very useful, but only if managing the priorities themselves is a very lightweight process.  It's good to know, I think, at the start of each day, which things absolutely must get done, versus which things can maybe wait a while.  For instance, as I ride the subway to work, I look through my tasks for the day - complete with priorities - and can start actually planning things out mentally in more detail: fitting my tasks into the gaps between meetings, what to do in the morning versus the afternoon, and so on.  This only takes a few minutes, usually, and I find it really gets me ready for a good day's work.

Your mileage may - in fact, likely, will - vary.  Everyone is different.  The ways you work best aren't necessarily the ways I work best.  You may agree with me, or you may not.  If you don't agree with me - well then, maybe there's another personal productivity system that will work better for you.  No harm, no foul - I know what I propose here isn't going to work for everyone; all I hope is that some of it will work for some people, some of the time.

So I suggest that it isn't the principle of prioritizing tasks that's wrong; rather, it's how we measure priority that's wrong.

Priority is often related to urgency, which is a time-dependent thing.  I don't believe task priority should depend on time at all.  That's what due dates are for.   If you use task management software, due dates are handled extremely well and quite trivially by the software.  If you use a paper-based system, deadlines aren't anything a simple calendar can't handle.  So no matter how you do it, task priorities should not be time-dependent in any way.

So if we want to prioritize tasks, we need to do it using characteristics that won't change over time.

Effort and Impact

I think I may have found two characteristics that are pretty good for this: effort and impact.

Let's start with effort.  This is just the total amount of work needed to complete a task.  Note, I'm writing about the total amount of work, not of time.  I want to keep matters of time neatly compartmentalized away from priorities.  The effort can also measure the degree of concentration needed to complete a task.  Disarming a bomb and paying a phone bill could take the same amount of time, but one needs significantly more concentration than the other.  The total amount of work and the degree of concentration are both factors that aren't likely to change over time.  So by tying priority to effort, it's just that much more likely that a task's priority will remain constant.

Here's where breaking tasks down also comes in handy.  By breaking a task into subtasks, I can partition up the effort required into smaller chunks, which leads me to lower the priorities of each chunk.  If I break things down finely enough, effort becomes a measure only of the amount of concentration needed to perform the task.

Of course, you can get carried away breaking down your tasks.  Not all tasks need to be broken down to the same degree.  I'll write about that in another posting.

The other characteristic is impact, by which I mean the significance of successfully completing a task (on time, if it has a due date).  Buying toothpaste has a low impact.  Submitting a $100,000 grant application has a high impact.

This may sound like "importance," but it's a little different. When we say a task is important, our focus is on the task. But I think the only reason a task is important is if it has significant consequences. It's not the task that matters, but the result of doing it. After all, a task is a means, not an end.

A task is a how we do something - that's efficiency.  The reason we do the task - that's effectiveness.

This may sound a little like goals in GTD, but it really isn't.  Goals are overarching end-states that drive the selection of projects; they're "big picture" items that could take years to attain.  Instead, by "impact," I mean what a task's completion implies - how it changes your world - in a very specific way. Again, it's not about the importance of the task itself; rather, it's about the effects of completing it.

Implementing Priorities

I think it is sufficient to have only two levels for each if these characteristics: low or high effort, and low or high impact.  This gives us four possible values: E (high effort and low impact), I (low effort and high impact), EI (high effort and impact), and 0 (zero - none of the above).

We can map these alternatives to scalar values. "None of the above" is easy and obvious: zero, or null.  EI maps to the highest value. The trick is deciding what to do with E and I.  We could say that E is more important than I, or that I is more important than E, or that they are of equal importance.

The choice here is a  personal one based on how we regard effort and impact with respect to each other.  Personally, I think they're "equal" because I don't see how one can compare them at all; they're apples and oranges. But that's just me.  If you're seriously considering this approach to priorities, you should invest some time to decide which alternative you're most comfortable with.

If you agree with me, then we can set both E and I to 1.  It follows that EI would be 2 (1 + 1), and the null value is 0.  This is shown graphically in the upper table in the figure to the left.

Elsewise, if you think that effort is more important than impact, you might set I to 1, E to 2 and EI to 3 (that is, E + I).  This is shown in the lower table to the left.  There is a similar way to treat things if you believe that impact is more important than effort, that I leave as an exercise to the reader.

It's important to note that this system is pretty easy to do in your head.  It might take a few days to get used to, but you'll find it very quickly becomes second nature.  While you're getting used to it, you can write the rules - as the little chart to the left - on a post-it that you keep in your notebook, or even stuck to the back of your PDA or smartphone.  I wager that within a week, you'll have forgotten all about the post-it.

Now, some may be uncomfortable with only two levels for each characteristic.  The notion of a task either having no impact or a significant impact, for instance, may just rub you the wrong way.  It's important that you feel comfortable with your task management system, so it's worth considering some alternatives.

The problem is that the number of values that a task's priority can assume increases with the square of the number of values for each characteristic.  So even adding one extra value to each characteristic can make using the method significantly more difficult.  To see what I mean, consider using three values for each characteristic.  The charts for this case are shown to the left.  These are the kinds of charts you'd put on a post-it to remind you how to do it.

The top grid on the right is just for the case where you think effort and impact are of equal significance.  Using the chart is straightforward.  For each characteristic, you decide if a given task ranks low (L), medium (M), or high (H).  The value in the cell for that row/column combination is the priority.

If, however, you think one characteristic is more important than the other, things get even more interesting because you have to decide how much more significant one is than the other.

One way you can do this is using a (0, 1, 2) scale for the least important property and (0, 2, 4) for the more important property.  Again, you can see the result in the image.  It's not rocket science, but it's trickier than if you just have two levels for each characteristic.

Unfortunately, no app currently supports this scheme of assigning priorities, so if you want to use this method, you're pretty much stuck with pen and paper. It would be nice if at least some apps implemented some reconfigurability in their priority settings so that different users can change how priority is calculated from user data. Maybe some software developers will read this and agree that more flexibility would be good.

You can "cheat" this a bit if you use an app that implements the Franklin-Covey ABC-123 method.  You can use A, B, and C to represent levels for, say, effort; and you can use 1, 2, and 3 for the levels of impact.  Assuming A and 1 are the "highest" values, then an A1 task is the highest priority; A3 means a priority of not much impact but requiring significant effort, and C1 means a priority of low effort and high impact.  Again, it might help to write it out on a post-it until you get used to it.

The point is this: if you want to capture any sense of task priority, and if you want something more than just following your gut (which may certainly be sufficient for some people) you need to break the notion of "priority" down into pieces that are easily combined into an overall measure and are individually also easy to assign and crisply definable.

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